Saddle Up Safely with the International Society of Rider Biomechanics
Published 07-26-2013 3:02 PM | Fernanda Camargo
This blog entry was written by Katie Pacheco, Vice President of the International Society of Rider Biomechanics, and accomplished horsewoman.
Through the years I have spent in the equine industry, I have had the honor of watching some wonderful riders on some outstanding horses. Unfortunately, I have also seen my fair share of accidents and injuries. One observation that I have made is that the majority of these injuries could have been easily avoided. Some of them could have been prevented by simply taking a moment to tie a shoe. Others may have involved a more difficult decision such as, “My horse is not safe to ride today.” But many of them could have been avoided if the rider was sitting in a position that was more stable and balanced. We all know that if you ride long enough, even if you are cautious and wise, you will eventually find yourself on a horse that spooks, bolts, bucks, spins, or performs some other unsafe maneuver. While we may not always be able to prevent dangerous situations from occurring, we can ride in such a way that when they do happen, we are secure in the saddle, making us less likely to take a fall. To help our students accomplish this, the International Society of Rider Biomechanics (ISRB) has a series of tests that we perform to analyze rider stability in the saddle. We use these tests on our beginner students to help teach them correct positioning, as well as with our advanced students to continuously improve their balance and effectiveness in the saddle.
Rider Tests – Lower Leg
We start by testing the rider’s lower leg position. This segment of the body is often referred to as the rider’s “foundation” and any imbalance here will affect the entire body. To start, we ask the rider to stand in the stirrups and find a position in which they feel comfortable and balanced. We then apply forward pressure on the back of the rider’s heel, trying to push the lower leg toward the horse’s forehand. If the rider has a secure lower leg, they will be able to remain standing in the stirrups despite the pressure applied to the back of their heel. However, if there is any weakness in their position, their lower leg will swing forward, causing them to “fall” down into the saddle.
We find that for a safe and effective position the rider must have 4 components present in the lower leg:
1. The stirrups must be adjusted to the correct length: When the leg is hanging straight down and the rider is sitting up and looking forward, the base of the stirrup should hit just below the ankle knobble.
2. The heel must be the lowest point of the rider’s body
3. The toes must be pointed forward, positioning the rider’s foot parallel to the horse: Rather than rotating your foot in, grab the back of the thighs and rotate them outward. This will bring the toes forward by correcting the entire leg, rather than putting rotational stress on the knee.
4. All 5 balls of the foot must be stabilized on the base of the stirrup: If the toes are pointed forward and all 5 balls of the foot are supported, the base of the stirrup will be held perpendicular to the horse’s body.
This rider is demonstrating excellent leg positioning. The only thing that we might adjust is to bring the stirrup under the 5th ball of the foot, as it appears to be slightly ahead of it. (photo courtesy of Catherine Mullen)
When these 4 factors are correct, we can ask the rider to stand in the stirrups and test their position again. This time we will find that we can put a lot of pressure and actually push on the back of the rider’s heel, but they will be able to remain stable and standing in the saddle. After adjusting and retesting, I like to ask my students to just take a quick ride around on their horse and feel how much more secure and connected they are.
Rider Tests – Upper Body
We also have a series of tests to assess the rider’s upper body position. In most cases when a rider falls, the upper body initiates the motion, while the lower body follows, meaning if the upper body tips to the right, the rider falls to the right, if the upper body tips left, the rider falls left. The biggest danger occurs when the rider tips forward. Falling forward off the horse is by far the most dangerous way to come off because it puts the head and neck at the highest risk for injury. In the Upper Body Rider Tests, we will determine if the rider is sitting in a position that puts them at a higher risk of falling forward off the horse. Alarmingly, the vast majority of riders that we test for the first time are putting themselves at risk.
To start this series of tests, we will again ask the rider to stand in the stirrups and find a comfortable and balanced position. The instructor should stand at one of the horse’s shoulders and grasp the rider’s opposite hand so that their arm is extended across the front of their body. For instance, if the instructor is standing on the left side of the horse, they will grasp the rider’s right hand. To test the rider’s position, the instructor will carefully pull on the rider’s hand. If the rider has any instability in their position, they will be pulled forward, “falling” onto the horse’s wither. When performing rider tests for the upper body, the instructor or helper must take great caution to not pull too hard, as it is easy to pull the rider off the horse if they are not in the correct position. Always start with a soft pull, and increase the pressure as you find that you can safely.
We find that for a safe and effective position the rider must have 4 components present in the upper body:
1. The rider must be looking forward with their chin up
2. The chest must be held in good posture with shoulders back
3. The hands must be held with the thumb being the highest point of the hand
4. The elbow must be by the rider’s side.